Sunday, 18 February 2007

Gong Xi Fa Chai

From a longitude point of view, we could have been celebrating the Chinese New Year today. However, we didn't have any mandarins and so it was a day like all other for us.

Last night we passed the abundant settlement Kebiume and were now on an older, narrower and less frequented part of the Kolyma Highway that will lead us right into the cold heart of the Northern Pole of Cold.

At a lake, we stopped again for some hunter skiing. Hausi stopped here for the first time. He has definitely to take this part into the program. It was absolutely brilliant.

When skiing around, my glasses always froze from the humidity from my breath. This was a bit disappointing. I should have brought dailies with me. Because of this problem, I could not cover my face properly, which exposes me to frost bite.

In the late afternoon, we stopped at exactly the same place as the picture was taken at the top of this blog (N 63° 12´21.7" O 142° 36´33.1"). We climbed the same hill a bit further and waited for the sunset...

... and did some silly things:

In the evening, Toño climbed into the cabin of a coal truck that parked next to us. He had to test huge amounts of fish liver and the occasional vodka.

Saturday, 17 February 2007

Fairy Tale Forrest

One of the daily jobs is to find a place with good and clear water. It's harder than one might think. Hausi spares no pains for us.

After we took care of our liquid supplies, we climbed up a valley towards a wide elevated plain, which turned out to be like out of a fairy tale. Snow, hoarfrost, mountains and hills have built the perfect setting for a Cinderella film.

Of course, we could hardly wait to discover the magic forest by our hunter skies.

It was much more difficult to operate them in a forest than on the naled a couple of days ago. The snow was deeper, softer and the terrain undulating. However, it was total fun. After a tea break, we left the forest and proceeded over the plain, which is a marsh during the short summer.

At school I was forced to practise langlauf or cross-country ski as some call it. I loathed it back then, but know it actually helped me fore the first time. I almost flew over the plain when I applied diagonal stride.

At the end, we were the ones with hoarfrost. But we melted soon. Valentina was waiting for us with boiling hot mulled wine.

Friday, 16 February 2007

Holiday on Ice

As yesterday, Hausi went up early to make us fried eggs for breakfast in the kitchen of our flat turned into a hotel. He really takes good care for us.

Today, we left Tioply Kliutsh for good and headed east. Soon we passed a shaman tree. You can recognise such a tree by ribbons and sacrificial offerings attached to its twigs, such as cigarettes and even shoes. Toño tried to soothe the spirits by tossing a couple of my (!) coins over his shoulder into the creek next to the shaman tree.

At a really nice spot we stopped to take a walk on the Eastern Chandiga Naled. Of course, in summer this is a rapid stream. When the ice cracked under us, we were afraid to face the same fate as the Kamaz yesterday. But soon we learned that this is only the top layer (we are far lighter than a truck) and we started to crack it on purpose and just for our entertainment.

Only a kilometre further east, we stopped at the highest slope at the Kolyma Highway with an impressive view over the Eastern Chandiga Naled and the mountains of the Chersky Range.

The night we spent next to a grave of a truck driver.

Thursday, 15 February 2007

Gulag Labour Camp

In the morning, we discovered that we camped next to a Naled. A Naled is a special ice build-up in streams. When the the water in a stream freezes, subsequent inflowing water then flows over the surface and freezes, forming large build-ups of ice. These are known as icings, Aufeis (German), or Naleds (Russian).

Naleds are nothing unusual in this part of the world. We will see many more in the course of our journey. The remarkable thing was, that a Kamaz truck broke through this one during last night.

Some Naleds have layers of water between the ice. They look solid on the outside but as soon as you cross it with a heavy truck they might crash under the load. That's what happened. Our Ural Ural was far to weak to pull this one out and we had to leave them in their misery. Vasily found a more or less safe passage through the ice and water mixture. But after that, he was not to stop for quite some time. The gears got wet and they had to be kept in motion until they were dry.

Although we were on the trail to Topolinnoje, this was not the target of our journey. Close to the road, there were the remains of a Gulag labour camps. It was non of the big ones build to dig for gold and other natural resources, like the one Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn spent his undeserved term. This one was built to construct the road. There was one every twelve kilometres.

We had to wade through knee deep snow to get to the camp. There was not much left, but we got a faint idea of the hardship that the inmates went through.

For the night, we returned to our hotel in Tioply Kliutsh. The Kamaz was still caught in the Naled.

Wednesday, 14 February 2007

First Trials

At Tioply Kliutsh there was supposed to be a museum about the Kolyma Highway. It had moved and and it took us quite a while to find the new place. Thre is no point to tell the new address. Things change here all the time and next year it will again.

When we finally found it, its curator explained that the museum is not set-up yet. She has no idea when it will be, because she has no money to do so. We helped her to set up a TV and a VCR, so that we could at least watch a video about the Kolyma Highway.

Our hotel

Vasily lives in Tioply Kliutsh. We had lunch at his place and then headed north on a side track of the Kolyma Highway towards a settlement called Topolinnoje. On a frozen river, we tried out the hunter skies for the first time. It's quite tricky to operate them without sticks, but with Valenki and a rather basic strap binding.

After dinner, we were asked to help to pull another Ural truck with a flat tire out of a ditch. Mutual assistance goes without saying in this area. Gregor made the mistake to grab a jack without gloves. Within an hour, his fingers were covered with huge bubbles.

Having done our good deed for the day, we were ready for our first night in the Vachtovka. Vasily constructed benches that can be used for dinner and easily can be turned into bunks. Of course, this will always require a lot of luggage shuffeling, but it works just fine.

Tuesday, 13 February 2007

On The Road

Today we planed to cover the first 500 kilometres on the Kolyma Highway. Some call it the Road of Bones, because it was constructed by inmates of Gulag labour camps. Many of them died in the process. One of the inmates, Yevgenia Ginzburg, was one of the few prisoners to notice a peculiar paradox. It was strange, but true: in Kolyma the Gulag was slowly bringing 'civilization' to the remote wilderness.*

The Kolyma Highway is 2032 kilometers long and connects Yakutsk with Magadan. The authorities try their best to maintain the road. However, due to the extreme climate, the road is hardly traversable by standard road vehicles. During winter it is easier, because frozen water actually helps river crossings.

Our vehicle is a 6x6 Ural truck with passenger cabin. This type of transport is called Vachtovka. Its gearbox is not synchronized nor equipped with differential locks. But it is is simple and reliable, which is an attractive quality in remote areas. Because of the rather low temperatures, Vasily can not switch its Ural off for longer than about 20 minutes. He has to do this once per day to check the oil gauge.

After buying the last essentials (bread and bear), we paid the obligatory tribute. The indigenous people of Yakutia are pagans and many customs made it into everyday life. The custom we obey is to drink some vodka at the bank of the Lena River. Of course, the Lena gets the first gulp.

The landscape on this leg of the journey was flat with lots of forests and the occasional settlement. The road was good and we made good progress. We stopped at a roadhouse for a Borsch and a Plov. The place was also a kind of memorial for the Great Patriotic War.

In Chandiga we searched for a stove and gas, this included some strange street dealing. Our cook Valentina climbed also on the bandwagon.

Between Chandiga and Tioply Kliutsh we encountered a crashed mini bus. Obviously, it had skidded and then hit the snow at the roadside. The four passengers seemed slightly drunk. We took them with us to Chandiga, because in the cold they would not have survied the night. They were laughing all the time. One of them had a bleeding finger and was pulling smithers of glass out of his head and hair. Valentina read them the riot act and kept them in check.

At Tioply Kliutsh we spent the night in a hotel. Actually it was a one room apartment with six beds in the living room.

Elena, the mother of the real inhabitants, was very nervous. She was afraid that we were not pleased, which caused a lot of fuss. At one point, her daughter called because she was afraid to have her mother in the middle of six foreign men (one of them is taking the picture):

* Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History, Doubleday, April, 2003, page 100-101

Monday, 12 February 2007

Chez Azaliya

Normally when an air plane lands, people can't be stopped rushing to the exit. Not so when you land at Yakutsk airport at 04:15am with -36°F/-38°C outside temperature. Everyone tries to be the last one, who's leaving the plane and heading to the bus waiting with open doors for the last passenger. Yakutsk is one of the coldest cities on earth and the biggest city built on continuous permafrost.

However as usual, it took ages until our luggage arrived and we could head to the Hotel Lena, named after the River Lena* that passes Yakutsk. Unlike the outside world, our room was heavily over-heated, so that it was difficult to find some rest.

In the afternoon, we bought Valenki, traditional Russian winter footwear made of felt, in an open-air market made of shipping containers. I also needed a cheap Ushanka, the fur hat with ear flaps that can be tied up to the crown of the cap, or tied at the chin to protect the ears from the cold. My Mink Ushanka is to precious to be used outside of an an urban environment.

In the evening we made the walk to Azaliya's apartment for a Siberian dinner. The table was bending under the heavy load of zakuski (appetizers), such as fruits, tongue and a wide range of salads, among which Salad Indigirka containing cubes of frozen raw nelma fish, pepper and onion. The pièce de résistance was a filled fish. Azaliya had also prepared a fish in head cheese, but we just not eat any more. And did I mention Mors, the delicious Russian juice made of berries, which Azaliya also served?

* Lenin was the best known of Vladimir Ulyanov’s revolutionary pseudonyms. He is believed to have created it to show his opposition to Georgi Plekhanov, who used the pseudonym Volgin, after the Volga River. Ulyanov picked Sakha's Lena River, which flows in the opposite direction, and is longer.